Sep 19, 2020

Axios Deep Dives

By Mike Allen
Mike Allen

Good afternoon and welcome to a Deep Dive led by Axios energy and climate reporter Amy Harder.

  • We were saddened to learn of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Among many accomplishments, she had a long record of supporting environmental protections. (Politico)
  • This deep dive looks at the current climate-change moment, where 2020 is now on track to have one of the busiest Atlantic hurricane seasons ever and where California wildfires have already burned more acres this year than any other in history.

Today's Smart Brevity™ count: 1,197 words, 4.5 minutes.

1 big thing: Tech steps into the climate fight

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Jit Chattopadhyay/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

The tech industry is playing a growing role in fighting climate change through efforts such as zero-carbon commitments while pushing for the use of data to encourage energy efficiency, Amy writes.

Why it matters: Big Tech already dominates our economy, politics and culture. Its efforts in helping to address climate change — and reckon with its own role in contributing to it — could have similarly transformative impacts.

Driving the news: Amazon and Shopify revealed the first recipients of their $2 billion and $5 million respective investment funds this week. Microsoft has a similar fund of $1 billion.

  • CarbonCure Technologies, which makes climate-friendly concrete, just announced investments from Amazon and Microsoft (among others). Shopify is also backing the firm.
  • Other startups receiving tech money include Pachama, which uses AI to preserve forests, and TurnTide Technologies, which makes efficient motors for things like HVAC and refrigerators.

"Each one has something very different to offer," Kara Hurst, Amazon's global lead on sustainability, said at a virtual Axios event Thursday.

  • "But there is a unifying theme that they are driving decarbonization and they have the potential to lower our carbon footprint."

The big picture: Tech firms have been leading investors into energy startups since 2016, according to the International Energy Agency.

  • But they face pressure from their employees and the public about their own carbon footprints as well as their deals helping fossil fuel companies.
  • In what is likely at least a partial acknowledgement of that pressure, Microsoft announced this week it was partnering with BP to help the oil giant cut its emissions.

The bottom line: The amount of money the firms are investing is tiny compared to bottom lines. PR concerns about corporate social responsibility is probably a driving factor too. But, IEA chief statistician Nick Johnstone points out: “I don’t care about their motivations if it does some good.”

Bonus scoop: New climate coalition

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Getty Images photos: Rudy Sulgan and Anton Petrus

The Digital Climate Alliance, a new coalition revealed here for the first time, will lobby lawmakers on ensuring digital solutions are part of climate policy, Amy reports.

Driving the news: Led by Intel and Johnson Controls, the group has six members and aims to more than double by next year. The coalition will lobby Congress to get a digital title into pending climate policy.

How it works: One idea proposed in a recent peer-reviewed study is for tech companies to shift digital requests like web searches to data centers in locations where excess electricity, such as from solar in the middle of the day, is otherwise wasted.

  • Another component will assess emissions on a granular level, like a specific building or different types of fossil fuels.

Go deeper: Read Amy's Harder Line column on Big Tech's efforts and new lobbying push.

2. How scientists pin extreme weather on climate change

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Getty Images photos: David McNew and George Rose

Climate scientists are increasingly able to use computer models to determine how climate change makes some extreme weather more likely, Bryan Walsh writes.

Why it matters: Being able to directly attribute the role climate plays in natural catastrophes can help us better prepare for disasters to come, while underscoring the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Driving the news: The wildfires currently devastating the West Coast are historic, but they're also part of a measurable surge in fires in recent years.

  • Compared to the 1980s, the acreage burned in Western states annually between 2010 and 2019 has more than doubled, according to an analysis of government data by Climate Central, a climate science nonprofit.
  • Climate change clearly plays a driving role. Research has found that roughly half of the acreage burned since the mid-1980s can be attributed to warming temperatures caused by climate change, notes Matthew Hurteau, an ecologist at the University of New Mexico.

The backstory: It was long the case that scientists were hesitant to link any single event to climate change.

  • That's begun to change in recent years as computational power has become less expensive, allowing scientists to run climate models that compare what actually happens in our warming world to a hypothetical planet where climate change never occurred.
  • By comparing those models, scientists can determine how much climate change has loaded the dice to make an extreme event more likely.

A newer attribution research method, known as the storyline approach, works more like an autopsy, determining the causes of an extreme event like a storm and indicating whether climate change was one of those causes.

  • A study published in January used a storyline approach to examine Hurricane Florence, which struck the Carolinas in 2018. It found that the storm was over five miles wider because of climate change, with rainfall amounts increased by nearly five inches.
3. Chart: America’s wildfires
Data: National Interagency Coordination Center; Note: Cumulative counts are sometimes revised, causing short-lived spikes or dips in the number of acres burned; Chart: Axios Visuals
4. The new politics of global warming

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Getty Images photos: Ethan Miller and Chip Somodevilla

Democratic voters are more concerned about it than in prior presidential cycles, polling shows, Ben Geman reports.

  • “It became one of the top priorities for the base of one of our two parties,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, a Yale analyst of public views on climate. “For the first time, there was a real climate vote in the primaries.”

Why it matters: The policy gap has never been wider.

  • Joe Biden's platform is more aggressive than Hillary Clinton's four years ago, and goes far beyond anything floated or implemented under former President Obama.
  • President Trump rejects consensus climate science and is unwinding Obama-era policies.

Yes, but: Polling shows an extremely durable and familiar partisan divide.

  • Pew Research Center polling this year showed that 78% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said climate should be a top government priority vs. 21% of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents.

The intrigue: Contrary to the conventional wisdom that candidates should run toward the center in the general election, Biden's platform has moved closer to what activists want since he won the nomination.

  • This indicates that one of Biden's key priorities is motivating his base voters, not just appealing to a vanishing pool of undecideds, Leiserowitz said.

The bottom line: Climate is never close to the biggest political focus in presidential campaigns, and that's still true. But its profile is rising along with the stakes.

5. A historic emissions drop, but the planet isn’t noticing
Reproduced from Forster, et al., 2020, "Current and future global climate impacts resulting from COVID-19"; Chart: Axios Visuals

This year’s pandemic-fueled decline in global greenhouse gas emissions is likely the biggest in recorded history — but its impact will be small on greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere, which determine Earth's temperature.

Why it matters: Atmospheric concentrations are still steadily rising because this year’s drop, despite its historic size, isn’t expected to be long-lasting enough to make a difference.

6. The countries painting their pandemic recoveries green
Reproduced from BloombergNEF; Note: Carbon & climate funds focus on nature conservation and lowering methane emissions; Chart: Axios Visuals

Green investments account for roughly 1% of the overall $12 trillion currently pledged by major economies recovering from pandemic-induced recessions, according to a new BloombergNEF report, Orion Rummler writes.

Why it matters: The International Energy Agency projected in May that global investment in all forms of energy would fall by one-fifth this year due to the pandemic, with a 10% decrease for renewable power.

The intrigue: South Korea ($61 billion) has approved almost as much green economic stimulus as all European Union nations combined ($79 billion). Importantly, though, that does not include a massive EU package that has yet to be approved.

7. One personal thing

Seattle Space Needle with smoky skies on Sept. 12, 2020. Photo: Amy Harder/Axios

Amy writes: As I woke up to a seventh straight day of not leaving my Seattle apartment due to wildfire smoke, I thought: This is worse than the pandemic!

My thought bubble: Wait, no, it’s only worse because there is a pandemic. If there wasn’t, I could visit friends or the gym or museums without fear of the virus.

Why it matters: This is what scientists call "cascading crises," which 222 of them warned us about in February just weeks before the pandemic toppled our lives.

The bottom line: The pandemic will eventually lessen and the wildfires are unlikely to be this bad every year. But climate change is, over time, increasing the risk of cascading crises.

Mike Allen